Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone is an extremely readable book. Although it might be considered a “textbook,” Stone has written in a lively, conversational style that eliminates any hint of dryness. She takes as her basic premise the idea that the assumption of many public policymakers is flawed. “The fields of political science, public administration, law, and policy analysis have a common mission of rescuing public policy from the irrationalities and indignities of politics, hoping to make policy instead with rational, analytical, and scientific methods.” (P. 7). She argues that this idea, of combining the missions of these various agencies in the hope of arriving at a systematic way of making rational policy, is mistaken, because the thought underlying them is itself paradoxical, and furthermore because the agencies are political.
Thus, any analysis of the policies of these agencies is done in a political manner; that is, “it is a strategically crafted argument, designed to create ambiguities and paradoxes and … resolved in a particular direction.” (P. 8). Her second aim is to find a political analysis that makes sense, given the fact that the idea of divorcing public policy from politics is in itself a paradox. She begins by defining her terms in an attempt to find a good “model of political society … a model of the simplest version of society that retains the essential elements of politics.” (P. 17). She first examines the market model, but then goes on to say that contrasting the market model with the political model will show how grossly the market model distorts political life. (P. 17). Given the fact that much of today’s society, in particular those who “worship” at the altar of the free market, is apparently devoted to the unbridled spread of global capitalism, this is an excellent starting point.
In answer to those who continually praise the unregulated free market as the only true force driving the economy, and who resist efforts to “level the playing field”, saying that such policies are unnecessary, Stone points out that people who make that argument see the market in terms of individuals only. These individuals seek to maximize profits for themselves. But that’s not the way the real world works, because people, despite their individuality, also have ties to organizations and entities (families, communities) much larger than themselves. They might act in an entirely different way when a family is at stake than they would when it’s just their own welfare involved. The “market model” is ineffective because it ignores the fact that most people are not acting only in their own interest, and is too simplistic to reflect the realities of life. She prefers instead the “polis model”—“polis” being the ancient Greek word for a city-state, and where we get the word “politics.”
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She suggests that the polis, or community, is a better model for society since it reflects the shared interests of a number of people. It sounds like a much more attractive model, and she gives examples of various concepts of society in both the “market model” and the “polis model”. For example, in the “market model” the “unit of analysis” is the individual; in the “polis model” it’s the community; in the “market model” motivation is self-interest; in the “polis model” it’s a public interest, and in the “nature of collective activity” it’s competition in the “market model” and cooperation and competition in the “polis model.” (P. 33). It seems that the polis is a much more pleasant and civilized model to follow than that characterized by the strong self-interest and fierce competitiveness of the market. The market, with its simplistic idea that supply and demand is the single driving factor in all transactions, suits the mindset of those who need absolutes and concrete answers. But we live in a world of paradoxes, and the polis will always be in a state of flux; we will never have complete solutions.
She expands on this messiness in her next section, entitled “Goals.” Here she lists five terms that she considers goals for public policy. But each is riddled with ambiguity. The five are “security,” “equity,” “efficiency,” “liberty” and “community.” She devotes a chapter to each, beginning with a definition of the term as commonly used, and then going on to illustrate how each can be defined in different ways depending on the needs of those giving the definitions. From there she moves through chapters dealing with such subjects as “Causes,” “Rights” and “Decisions,” and in each one, she shows how all these issues can be seen from different viewpoints; how each can be made to stand for something different; and how ambiguity enters into our study of every one of them.
Her final piece of advice to those lost in a thicket of ambiguity: return to the goals. Remember that facts may not be facts; they may be hype, depending on who’s saying what: “When you get lost, come back to goals. Ask yourself again and again why you are trying to achieve and why you believe it is right. Ask yourself what the political actors you are studying want to achieve. When you analyze different problem definitions, consider them from the point of view of goals. Ask of every problem definition, ‘What’s wrong or what’s missing according to the author of the story?” Does an analysis lead down a different path and presume a different goal than the one the authors say they’re after, or the one their opponents are after?” (P. 412). In the final analysis, ambiguity and paradox can be helpful, because they give us many different courses of action to choose from, each with a different potential resolution. Carefully considering each can help us reach the best solution.
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